BOOKS OF THE YEAR: SPORT: Will Alex Ferguson concede defeat?

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The Independent Culture
The unlikely marketing stunt is now a tedious regular in publishing, but Alex Ferguson must be congratulated on contriving the most effective literary PR campaign of 1999, if not the century. Winning the domestic title, FA Cup and the European Cup was a pretty effective way of drawing attention to his forthcoming autobiography, and must have inspired mass outbreaks of smugness at Hodder and Stoughton, who advanced the United manager a cool million pounds and must have realised their pay day had come when Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scored United's second goal in the dying seconds of injury time against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp.

Needless to say, nothing in Alex Ferguson: Managing My Life (Hodder pounds 18.99) quite lives up to the drama of the last two minutes of the European Cup final, but it is a decent, thorough and engaging attempt to do justice to the life and career of this decade's most successful football manager. Written in collaboration with the peerless Hugh McIlvanney, it's an exhaustive biographical narrative that details Ferguson's life experiences from tough Govan childhood, through his abortive playing career and his determined rise from football's pits to its pinnacles. McIvanney's prose smoothly transforms Ferguson's experiences into an efficiently readable story, but it's Ferguson's personality - meticulous, forceful and occasionally brutal - which shines through dominantly. This is certainly this year's most significant sporting publication.

Rugby Union had its World Cup, but the literature which arrived to accompany the event was, like the competition itself, uniform, drab and, apart from a couple of exceptions, instantly forgettable. Sean Smith's The Union Game (BBC pounds 16.99), which accompanied the BBC series, handsomely surveyed the spread of the game through the world. It cogently illustrated how a sport which was for the most part based on a narrow and obnoxious social exclusivity, did, in spite of itself, become a vehicle for smaller nations (Wales, New Zealand) to take part on the world stage. In a completely different vein, John Bentley's My Story (Andre Deutsch pounds 16.99) gave a forthright version of the career of one of England's best players who experienced success in both codes of rugby. Playing in League for Leeds and Halifax, then in Union for Newcastle and with the British Lions on their tour of South Africa brought him into contact with famous figures in both sports, and he shows that as a writer he's no respecter of reputations. In fact he lays about some people (most notably Leeds' Gary Schofield and Newcastle's Rob Andrew) with such eager ferocity that he easily walks away with the 1999 Alex Ferguson Award for sporting shit-stirring.

Muhammad Ali has inspired some fine sportswriting in the past, and this year saw two excellent, and very different works on his life and career. David Remnick's King of the World (Picador pounds 14.99) is a tautly paced account of his odyssey through the ring. Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prizewinner, is a superb writer who can evoke drama with the sort of verve and panache that puts plenty of novelists to shame and he's at his impressive best here. Redemption Song (Verso pounds 17) by Mike Marqusee is a totally different beast. Whereas Remnick goes for the killer narrative, Marqusee evokes the (now mostly overlooked) social context in which Cassius Clay first distinguished himself before getting caught up in the radical politics of the 1960s, converting to Islam and renaming himself. Ali retakes his place amongst the cultural revolutionists of the time as the writer's analysis brings together the boxer with the other luminaries of the Black Power movement and reminds us, in these days when Ali is a distantly benign sporting figurehead, just how explosive and divisive a presence he was.

Proof, if any were needed, of sportswriting's contemporary status as a sort of hip belles lettres for the literati came this year in with A L Kennedy's On Bullfighting (Yellow Jersey pounds 10). A survey of the bullfighting spectacle, an evocation of Lorca and a personal journey through the miseries of writer's block, this survey seems so concerned with writing a non-Hemmingway- esque critique of the corrida that it quite fails to evoke the ritualistic throb of the whole thing.

This year's William Hill Award went to Derek Burley's A Social History of Cricket (Aurum pounds 20). If, like me, you find that there's only one thing more boring than watching cricket and that's reading about it, then you'll be as baffled as I was at the choice, given the strength of this year's list, which included the two aforementioned Ali books and Ian Stafford's Playground of the Gods (Mainstream, pounds 15.99). Stafford, experiencing an impending mid-life crisis, decided to indulge his dreams by playing with the best in as many different sports as he could manage. Amongst his exploits he goes rowing with Steve Redgrave, trains with the soccer team Rio de Janeiro and with the Springbok rugby team, and his account makes for a light and entertaining read. The remaining book on the list, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (Little, Brown pounds 17.99) was by far and away the best sportswriting book of the year. McGinniss, an American, became a soccer convert during the 94 World Cup and to consummate his passion travelled to Italy to follow the fortunes of this small town team in the second division. What followed reads like an outlandish mix of The Godfather, Deep Throat, Carry On, The French Connection and Mississippi Burning, as the team indulge in orgies, fall under the influence of the Mafia and grapple with Interpol, who are called in when one player's wife is caught in possession of a kilo and half of cocaine. All this and football too. Written with a fine eye for detail and surfeit of superb and hilarious anecdotes this is the kind of football book even Alex Ferguson would be happy to concede defeat to.

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